Nebraska gubernatorial candidates Pete Ricketts and Chuck Hassebrook held their first debate at the State Fair in Grand Island Monday night.
Outside, it was corndogs and funnel cakes that challenged State Fair-goers intestinal fortitude. Inside the Heartland Events Center, it was talk of state government policies that provided food for thought. The evenings first set of questions involved what the candidates would do differently from current Republican incumbent Dave Heineman, who’s been governor for 10 years.
Democrat Chuck Hassebrook, former University of Nebraska Regent and former head of the Center for Rural Affairs, said he’d be a ”hands on” governor and bring in people to straighten up troubled state agencies including the departments of Health and Human Services and Correctional Services. “So I’m going to do a national search to find the best person out there to lead those agencies. And then I’m going to give them the authority to move forward with their responsibility to get the job done,” he said.
Republican Pete Ricketts, a former executive at the TD Ameritrade online brokerage founded by his father and now a board member for the family-owned Chicago Cubs, also said he would start by building a team to implement his vision. But he praised Heineman’s record, and said he would use his background to improve on it. “That’s what I will do as governor and I’ve got real world experience in doing that. And that’s what I hope to be different from Gov. Heineman is building upon that foundation taking it to the next level and using my business experience to do it,” he said.
The candidates agreed that property taxes are the most troubling taxes. But they differed on what to do about them. Ricketts referred to his four point plan.
“The first has to do with …taking ag land valuations down from 75% to 65%; then the second is putting a cap on those valuations and how fast they can go up. The third is putting more money into the property tax credit relief fund. And fourth, what we have to do is curtail what the state does to counties and school districts when it pushes down unfunded mandates, whether it’s through regulation or services, because that just puts additional burden on property taxes,” Ricketts said.
Hassebrook did not object to most of those points. But he took issue with the property tax relief fund, which provides a credit to every property owner. Last year, it reduced taxes on a $100,000 house by about $66. Hassebrook said it needs to be changed. “Right now, the biggest beneficiary of that relief in the state is Ted Turner, because he’s the biggest property owner. And I’ll refocus that on modest income homeowners and family farmers and ranchers,” Hassebrook said.
The pair also differed on whether Ricketts supported Gov. Heineman’s proposal last year to abolish state income taxes by imposing sales taxes on currently exempt items including from seeds for agriculture and raw materials for manufacturing.
Hassebrook said the Platte Institute, a conservative think tank founded by Ricketts, supported the bill. “Your organization testified and lobbied for that bill. And they said the bill wasn’t perfect; it didn’t reduce their enthusiasm for the bill. It was a great bill, they were very enthusiastically supporting it,” he said. “Maybe it’s because it would have benefitted you so much. But you know what that would have done to farmers and ranchers is increase their costs by 30 bucks an acre before they turned a wheel. That would have overwhelmed any property tax relief you talked about providing.”
Ricketts said the Platte Institute is an academic organization devoted to generating ideas, not all of which he agrees with. “The Platte Institute actually didn’t testify there. The Tax Foundation testified. And they testified neutral on it, talking about general, broad policies with regard to taxes and so forth. It’s quite well documented, actually,” he said.
At the hearing, Joseph Henchman of the Tax Foundation testified in support of Heineman’s proposal, saying that he was “mostly here at the invitation of the Platte Institute.” But Henchman disagreed with the proposal to tax ag and manufacturing inputs. He later sent a letter saying he was not testifying for the Platte Institute and intended to testify neutral, not in support of the bill.
Hassebrook and Ricketts also differed over early childhood education. Hassebrook recommended increased state funding, although he said other sources would provide most of what’s needed.
“To pay for that I’m going to start by taking and braiding together the funding that’s already out there from state and federal programs that support child care for low income kids; to provide food assistance for low income kids. Braid that together and that gets you to about 80 percent of the cost of providing high quality early childhood education,” Hassebrook said.
Asked later for how much that 80 percent represents in dollars, Hassebrook said he didn’t have the figure off the top of his head.
Ricketts took a more cautious approach to the subject “When it comes to education, one of the things to remember is that about 48 percent of the kids in the state are already in a preschool program. And so we want to be cautious about shoving those kids out of those private programs already. And the other thing to think about is that if you look at some of the programs like Head Start, a lot of the benefit of that has worn off by third grade, so clearly there’s more work to be done,” Ricketts said.
The candidates also differed on whether the state should expand Medicaid, and whether it should offer drivers licenses to children brought to the country illegally by their parents. Hassebrook supported both policies, which Ricketts opposed.
Some of the sharpest exchanges in the debate occurred when the candidates questioned each other. Hassebrook questioned whether Ricketts father, Joe, was funding attack ads against him and Ricketts leading primary opponent, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning.
"Your dad is the nation’s fourth business political spender. Already this year he’s spent $4 million in two other states,” Hassebrook said. “Do you really expect Nebraskans to believe he’s not behind the attacks on me and Jon Bruning before me?”
Ricketts said he has no control over what outside groups do in the race, adding that his father was contributing to his campaign, which he said has been running a positive race.
For his part, Ricketts questioned whether Hassebrook supports President Barack Obama’s policies. “Chuck, you’ve been a big supporter of President Obama. You supported his expansion, his Obamacare – in fact I think you called it historic. You supported his immigration policies that created the human tragedy and crisis we’ve got on our borders. You supported the overregulation by the EPA of our farmers and ranchers. My question to you is , do you believe President Obama has been good for Nebraska?” Ricketts said.
Hassebrook responded that doesn’t blindly follow a political party, adding that Obama has been a “mixed bag” for Nebraska.
The two candidates next debate is scheduled for Oct. 2 in Lincoln.